Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for An Atlas of Impossible Longing includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, in the mid-20th century, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a multi-generational novel that weaves together a family’s story of romance, abandonment, forgiveness, and desire. Told in three powerful parts, the book explores what it means to live with the ghosts of the past, deal with an ever-changing present, and strive toward a blissful future that always seems just out of reach.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- “The silence that to Amulya meant repletion locked Kananbala within a bell jar she felt she could not prise open for air.” (p. 16) The move from busy Calcutta to secluded Songarh is life-changing for both Amulya and Kananbala, though in very different ways. Discuss how each is affected by the change.
- “He would look at [the plants] tenderly, wanting to stroke and pat them . . . He had created a garden where there had been wilderness” (p. 23). Describe Amulya's relationship to nature throughout the book. How does he treat the plants in his garden? Similarly, how did you interpret his fascination with the young dancer's Incarnata flower in the first chapter?
- “The lion’s roar was a secret she could not share with anybody else. The others slept on, oblivious to the throbbing wakefulness of the jungle.” (p. 19) Consider the roar of the lion that Kananbala hears periodically throughout the novel. Do you think Kananbala is hearing the roar of an actual lion, or do you think, in her madness, she is imagining the noise? What could the noise mean?
- Marriage can be both a blessing and a struggle, as the married couples in this novel exemplify. Review the various married couples involved in the story, and discuss: Which marriage do you think works the best? Which is the unhealthiest? Why?
- “Quietly she muttered, ‘God’s ways are strange, that He should give children to those who don’t care for them and leave me childless.” (p. 132) Manjula is seldom portrayed as a sympathetic character in the novel, yet her yearning for the child she can never have often gives her a certain vulnerability. How do you view Manjula? Does your opinion of her change over the course of the book?
- Kananbala and Mrs. Barnum share a bond from the moment Mrs. Barnum initiates the first wave. Does their relationship change after Kananbala witnesses Mr. Barnum’s murder? If so, how? Do you think Kananbala and Mrs. Barnum’s relationship at all contributes to Mrs. Barnum’s fondness for Bakul and Mukunda?
- The theme of man versus nature cuts through the novel, particularly when Bikash Babu laments the fall of his house to the rising river: “The arrogance,” he repeats. What emotions do you think he is feeling at that moment? At what point do you think he realizes that nature has truly won?
- Mukunda’s unknown caste gives him both trouble and freedom throughout the novel. In which ways does it help him? Hurt him? At any point, do you think he is treated unfairly because of his indefinite lineage?
- When Mukunda buys the house in Songarh, he believes he will finally be able to live a fulfilled life. Ultimately, what choices has he made by buying the house? What does he lose, and what does he gain?
- The pull of forbidden love is strong for many of the characters. Which characters resist this pull, and which seem to welcome it? Are any of them successful in refusing to succumb to forbidden love? If so, which?
- “If anyone in his family or neighborhood got to know, there would be turmoil; Meera would certainly be ostracized, and perhaps he would be too.” (p. 139) Consider the strain put on the characters by societal expectations. Do you think her certain exclusion from society is the only reason Meera runs from her attraction to Nirmal?
- The above quote suggests a double standard for women and men in these types of situations; Meera will “certainly be ostracized,” while Nirmal may only “perhaps” suffer society’s disdain. How is this double standard a reflection of society, and what is your reaction to it? Do you see a double standard for women and men elsewhere in the novel?
- Noorie the Parrot plays a small yet significant role in the book, and in the hearts of those who closely encounter her. What does she represent for Mukunda, the man who threatens to make “parrot stew” of her? To his wife, who sets the bird free to fend for itself? For Chacha and Chachi, who return to Calcutta to find Noorie is no longer there?
- After finishing the book, turn back to the beginning and reread the opening Prologue. Discuss: How has your interpretation of the opening paragraphs changed? Does the Prologue evoke different emotions now that you are more acquainted with the house and the river?
- During the massive displacement of the Indian Partition, more than 100,000 people died. Do you see ways in which these events mirror other events taking place in the world today?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- With the members of your reading group, create a family tree for the characters in the novel. You can use this diagram as a resource during your discussion.
- Mukunda fondly remembers Chacha’s inability to buy anything but books when he comes into a bit of spare money. Chacha appreciates everything from the “beautiful engraving on the title page” to the smell of the pages of a secondhand book. Take a trip to a bookstore or secondhand book sale in your community as Chacha might have done.
- Meera’s favorite hobby is taking care of the young pups she finds by the Songarh ruin. She also enjoys sketching them, the ruin, and the people she loves. Find a person, place, or animal that interests you and sketch that subject in two ways: how the subject truly looks—like Nirmal would request if you were sketching the ruin—and how the subject makes you feel.
- Anuradha Roy’s characters live in an ever-changing India, and the novel often touches upon the goings-on of the time period. Using the internet or your local library as a resource, learn more about India’s history in the first half of the 20th century.
- The symphony “Finlandia” by Sibelius plays a part in the book; Makunda hears the symphony in school on p. 221, the flute melody in it entrances Mukunda when Bakul plays it for him on p. 241, and he plays it himself on p.273. Find a recording of symphony and try to locate the movement with the flute Bakul plays. With your group, discuss what Mukunda may have been thinking or feeling when he heard the melody, and the emotions it brings up in you.